Poet James Weldon Johnson, who, with his brother, composer J. Rosamund Johnson, wrote the civil rights song, "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing."  The brothers were born in Florida to an American father, James Johnson, and Helen Louise Dillet, a native of Nassau, Bahamas. Portrait by Carl Van Vechten, 1932.
The melodies of many Bahamian American songs are derived from British, African, and American folk music, ring games, square dances, and church hymns. The music most characteristic of the Bahamas combines British and African music and instrumentation. With the ripsaw, goatskin drum, shakers and the triangle providing the rhythmic foundation, many songs with varying melodic lines are strung together in a continuous free flow. Instruments such as the accordion, guitar, or concertina provide the basic three-chord progression to support the melody.
In 1935, Alan Lomax, Zora Neale Hurston, and Mary Elizabeth Barnicle gathered recordings of Bahamian Americans singing work songs, ballads, sea songs, children's songs, gospel music, hymns, and voodoo music. The recordings were made in Frederica, St. Simon's Island, Georgia, and Eatonville, Belle Glade, and Chosen, Florida as well as recordings made in the Bahamas. This collection is housed and is available at the American Folklife Center, Library of Congress. The American Folklife Center also houses a pair of recordings made in 1943 and 1944 of the Bahamian American performer David F. Pryor singing Bahamian spirituals.
In 1937, folklorist Stetson Kennedy was put in charge of the Florida Federal Writers' Project, which included the documentation of Bahamians of British and African descent. Kennedy recorded Bahamian-American performers of African descent in Key West, singing songs learned in the Bahamas. Bahamian-American performers of British descent were recorded in Riviera (now Riviera Beach) singing "Conch songs" and telling tales. These field recordings are presented online as Florida Folklife from the WPA Collections, and songs from the collection are available in this presentation. Because of the period of these recordings, the music of white Bahamian Americans of British descent and those with African ancestry showed distinct differences in their song styles and repertoire. Traditional songs sung by white singers were often sung without instruments, for example, as this was common in traditional English song. But some songs were known to both groups, and the mixed tradition that is common today was developing. For example, an African-Bahamian version of "Bingo Was His Name," sung by Robert Butler, is a familiar song in English tradition.
The songs collected as part of the Florida WPA project provide a sense of the wide variety of traditional songs of Bahamian Americans. White British Bahamians who settled in Riviera Beach, Florida recalled songs they had learned in the Bahamas such as the sea shanty "Drive the Nail A'right, Boys," sung by Naomi Wilson, and a temperance song, "I Heard a Sweet Robin," sung by Wilber Roberts. The ethnographers captured the song of a fish peddler, or "Pescador," and a humorous African Bahamian complaint song sung by Robert Butler called "Phylis Stole the Ham." An expression of patriotism for a new country comes from an unidentified Bahamian American quartet: "The First Time I Come Into this Countree."
A relatively new style of music in the 1930s and 40s when these recordings were made was jazz, using the piano and brass instead of, or sometimes in addition to, traditional Bahamian instruments. For example, a traditional version of the Bahamian song "Hoist Up the John B Sail" is sung by Robert Butler accompanied by Theodore "Tea Roll" Rolle. Rolle, a jazz composer, singer, and band leader from Abaco Island, Bahamas also sings his jazz version of "Hoist Up the John B Sail." Rolle demonstrates scat singing in this song, concluding by telling the audience, "I am here because I am here." This song was the inspiration for the Beach Boys song, "Sloop John B," released in 1966. An example of "Tea Roll" Rolle's playful jazz composing style is available as well: "A Tea Roll Idea," sung by Rolle accompanying himself on piano was recorded by Stetson Kennedy in 1940. Bahamian American music of the 1930s and 40s, as found in these recordings, was undergoing changes to new musical styles familiar to us today, but a good part of what makes it Bahamian still remains.
- The song "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing" is available on video in this presentation, performed at the Library of Congress by the Washington, D.C.-based group Reverb at timecode 00:08:55 (select the link to view this video). [back to article]
- Bahamas Collections in the Archive of Folk Culture. A finding aid for collections in the archive of the American Folklife Center, Library of Congress.
- Florida Folklife from the WPA Collections (1937-1942). This presentation includes recordings of Bahamian Americans (from the ethnic and cultural groups page, select Bahamian Americans to view the list of items).
- See more articles about Ethnic Song in America.